Looking forwards not backwards – the battle for control of Hastings Pier

The news that Hastings Pier Charity had gone in to administration last November made Jess Steele feel physically sick.

“A phone call with the administrator in December sent me into a furious depression I haven’t experienced for 20 years. I couldn’t do any work, I couldn’t even bear to go into my office at home. I walked the dog a lot,” she says in a post to her blog ‘Spinning Plates’ that was published on Saturday.

She recalls that accidental meetings with Lesley Davis while walking her dog persuaded her to do something and that something was reconstituting the Friends of Hastings Pier (FoHP) at the beginning of February this year.

“We tried to get participation from the administrators, Heritage Lottery Fund and other funders. When they refused we decided to go ahead with a small and informal meeting for people who wanted to be active and constructive,” she recalls.

“That set the tone we have maintained throughout – we look forwards not backwards, we rise to the challenge, we adapt as necessary but maintain core principles that came from that first meeting and were voted on by 500 people at the public meeting on April 23rd,” she writes.

Those core principles, formally adopted at the end of the public meeting held in the White Rock Theatre were:

  1. People get a say in what happens next
  2. The community’s asset should not be sold off into private hands
  3. A partnership approach to ownership and operation is the way forward 
  4. Good results are underpinned by good governance
  5. The Pier should remain a space that everyone can enjoy and take pride in
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Jess Steele OBE

“We mobilised every possible resource available to a small, eccentric town on the south coast. The response from the town has been phenomenal. Our collaborators list was already impressive by the time we submitted our first ‘Friends Plan’ for Hastings Pier on April 12th; it has grown since,” she says pointing out that the number of people involved with the campaign for which she became the figurehead was growing all the time.

“The core was constantly growing, a swirl of purposeful activity, drawing in new people, creating something bigger than the sum of the parts. Of course it hasn’t been anything like perfect, but it’s been generally good-natured,” she says.

Transparency and openess was key to the process being followed by FoHP and on this Jess says: “While all our plans have been available online as they developed, the final proposal that we put to the administrators is not, because it contains genuinely confidential commercial information. It was a co-investing shared venture between FoHP Trust and a commercial operator, backed with £750,000 of guaranteed finance, alongside current funding bids or approaches from funders totalling £450,000, with dRMM (the pier’s architects) contributing £60,000-90,000 of design work, plus a comprehensive funding search by an Institute of Fundraisers expert showing we could ‘absolutely’ raise £1.6m capital to achieve and open a permanent building within three years and we could start straight away – dRMM had pulled an all-nighter for us and designed a beautiful but simple and cheap temporary structure.”

She points out that FoHP was committed to working with the existing team of staff and volunteers who she says have done so much to make this season a success so far. The unidentified commercial partner, an expert in their field, was to bring in additional expertise and experienced staff to fill gaps and cope with an expected increase in visitor numbers.

“Our approach… made a full and undoubted commitment to prioritise maintenance and to sustain the in-house engineering team which holds the crucial ‘corporate memory’ of the pier. To top all that, yesterday (Friday) afternoon we offered to pay a purchase price of £55,000. Without seeing the plans of others none of us can be categorically sure that it was the best option but it set a pretty high bar,” she says.

Alas that wan’t enough and on Friday evening it was announced that the administrators had sold the pier to Sheikh Abid Gulzar, owner of neighbouring Eastbourne Pier and the battle fought by FoHP was over.

Jess is critical of the approach taken by the administrators and explains where she believes the faults lay. She says it was inappropriate to use a commercial administration process for a civic/community asset and says the timescales allowed to develop proposals – not just the FoHP bid but for other bidders too – was almost designed to exclude good options and to waste a lot of people’s valuable time.

“They would never give us a deadline date or an honest description of the decision-making process,” she says of administrator Smith and Williamson.

Finally she turns her guns on local politicians who she says have been ‘absent’ from the process, she’s critical too of the Foreshore Trust, of which Hastings Borough Council is the trustee and also of the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).

HLF was the only secured creditor and Jess Steele says it has “hidden behind the administrators,” and suggests the fund may have been fearful of judicial review and therefore did not institute a “fair, open and engaging process that could achieve the best possible future for an asset of acknowledged national heritage and architectural significance.”

“They have all missed an opportunity to connect with and support voters, taxpayers, and lottery players, and to harness the energy of local people to solve local challenges, she concludes.

In summing up she explains: “This tragic fiasco is not just about Hastings Pier, any more than the HLF renovation funding or the Stirling Prize was. This has always been about economics and power and particularly the power or otherwise of local communities to manage, expand and protect their own local wealth.

“The two Battles for Hastings Pier (2006-13 and 2017-18) stand in stark contrast to each other. In one a very active community was eventually empowered by public funds to achieve the renovation of a derelict structure. In the other, the fully-restored asset was removed secretly from 5,000 shareholder-owners and then subjected to a commercial process that led, unfathomably, to where we are now.”

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